A World Rally Champion in all but name. If anybody deserved the title, it was Markku Alén.
And he had it. At least, he had it for 11 days. The Finn finished the 1986 season at the top of the table, only to be demoted when the governing body scrubbed the results from the Sanremo Rally. Without that controversial win, which came following Peugeot’s exclusion from the Italian event, Alén’s tally was 14 points short of Juha Kankkunen’s.
In terms of points, that wasn’t the closest he would come to the title – he finished the 1987 season 12 down from the crown. But for Alén, 1986 was the closest he would ever come.
Three decades down the line, he’s moved on. Deep down, it still hurts.
Fortunately, he has 19 world rally wins that nobody can take away. And every one of those victories came at the wheel of something built and run out of northern Italy.
Alén signed for Fiat in 1974 and the only change between then and 1989 involved a dash across Turin from the Lingotto factory near the city’s centre to Chivasso just beyond the north-east suburbs: Fiat to Lancia. Peugeot tried to tempt him over the border – he tested a 205T16, but it wasn’t for him.
Such was Alén’s commitment to the Italians, he learned the language, embraced the Latin temperament and even mistakenly parked his Subaru Legacy RS at Lancia’s service point on his first rally with a new employer in 1990.
Despite being accepted as one of their own by the tifosi, Alén showed his true colours when it came to the 1,000 Lakes Rally. Alén was the master, be it in a 131 Abarth or a Delta of some flavour – both cars you’ll be able to see at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.
In his backyard, he was a Finn’s Finn. In the heat of the battle, he was focused beyond belief and rarely had time for anything but the fight.
“Kiki, ask to Kiki…” was the answer to most questions, directing journalists in the direction of co-driver Ilkka Kivimäki.
Two things mark him out and lift him above some of his similarly competitive countrymen: he rarely crashed and he was lightening quick on asphalt; back-to-back Tour de Corse wins in 1983 and ’84 underlining that black-top pace.
Alén was a man made for Group B. Anybody who could light up a Delta S4 and keep it pinned down the fastest and most frightening stages in the world remains a genuine motorsport hero.
Further proof of the blend of steel and sisu from which Alén was carved comes in his response to the size of Lancia’s first Group B car, the 037. Struggling to get his six-foot-plus frame into the car, Alén ‘trimmed’ the top of his crash helmet and asked the mechanics to put a little dent in the roof above him.
So, his head was fractionally above the line of the roll cage…
“No problem, hey,” he says, “car was too small inside, but still beautiful: zero, three, seven. Fantastic car.”
And his favourite.
He adds: “When I come 1,000 Lakes in this car, I tell Kiki: ‘OK, we make new notes now. We braking 20 metres later for every corner’. Fantastic car.”